Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote that "one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman," a claim I could imagine making writer and critic Andrea Long Chu roll her eyes.
At the very least, Chu has an update: "Everyone is female," she writes in the appropriately titled Females, her first book, "and everyone hates it."
Chu has earned a reputation over the past few years as one of the sharpest new thinkers on gender and sexuality with her essays on, among other topics, transgender identity, feminism and television. (She has also picked up a rather loyal following on Twitter, where she treats her mental health, PhD candidature and pop-culture diet all with equal wit and consideration.) In Females — part memoir, part theoretical intervention — Chu explores and defends this claim about universal femaleness, perhaps as much to herself as to anyone else.
Of course, the "female" identity on which the book is based is admittedly less a biological condition than an existential one. Chu describes it as an experience "defined by self-negation" that includes "any psychic operation in which the self is sacrificed to make room for the desires of another." In other words, to be female — which, remember, we all are — is to not express your own desires, identity, personality but rather those of others, impressed upon you. And gender, it follows for Chu, is what people do to deal with the terrible fact of being female.
If that sounds dramatic or provocative, that's largely Chu's style. In 2018, she wrote a powerful essay in the magazine n+1 about transness and the history of feminist organizing that theorist Sandy Stone credited with launching a "second wave" of transgender studies; later that year, Chu wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times about transgender people's rights to medical care. In both cases — and in much of her writing — Chu meticulously frames the popular debate about transgender people, then positions her own point of view on another plane entirely. She's just as bored by those known colloquially as trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERFs, who deny transgender people's identities outright as she is by the common refrain that transgender people are simply "born in the wrong body" (as when Caitlyn Jenner joked to Diane Sawyer that God gave her "the soul of a woman"). At a moment when society is largely starting to gain a vocabulary for talking, albeit in less-than-nuanced ways, about transgender civil rights, Chu's refusal to support any mainstream narratives have made her a somewhat controversial figure.
But she simply isn't interested in straightforward, respectable answers. What most of these narratives don't account for, she argues in Females, is desire, in all its messy, definitional power. Chu asks: Instead of something stable and inherent — known and knowable, and inescapable right down to our very souls — what if gender is an extension of who we want to be? What if this quality of wanting didn't separate transgender people from cisgender people, but were instead a universal condition of gender itself?
Chu writes ferociously and exactingly about the nature of desire: what it makes us do; who it makes us become; grounding these questions in the culture of everyday life. Desire is how Fight Club and The Matrix get twisted in the hands of the internet "manosphere" into models of male supremacy; it's what lies beneath feminist disagreements about pornography from the '90s and why they play out today both in the alt-right and in Hollywood movies; it's there in the scrupulous beauty routines of a famous trans YouTuber. "Most desire is nonconsensual," she admits in a chapter of Females about pornography, and all the ways we try to engage with it — hide from it, ignore it, indulge it — indelibly shape us. Desire, for Chu, is gender's centrifugal force; it's what makes us all so female to begin with.
Chu puts these cultural products in conversation with the work of revered theorists: Sigmund Freud; Catharine MacKinnon; Andrea Dworkin; and Shulamith Firestone. But no one is so close to Chu's heart in Females as Valerie Solanas, the author and artist famous for writing the SCUM Manifesto, a radical text bent on eliminating the male sex (and for shooting and nearly killing Andy Warhol in 1968). Females started as an essay about Solanas' play Up Your A-- — which Solanas hoped, desperately and unsuccessfully, that Warhol would produce — and lines from the play anchor each chapter. Solanas didn't just give Chu an entrypoint into her first book; it was after encountering Solanas' work, Chu writes, that she began to come to terms with being transgender. (At the end of one chapter, she reflects on being told about a pornographic video in which two characters are seduced by a professor who reads SCUM, "turning them into lesbians." Chu says the plotline "made instant, perfect sense. It's what Valerie did to me.")
Solanas is often written off as an extremist, or an unfortunate and problematic accident of the second wave — but it's heartening to watch Chu take her seriously, taking her to task while looking at her legacy with generosity and scrutiny. If Chu knows that Females' central organizing thesis is wildly untenable, it's in Solanas' spirit that she pursues it nonetheless. "Valerie would make statements not because they were accurate or true, but simply because she wanted to," Chu writes; later, "We share this, I think: a preference for indefensible claims, for following our ambivalence to the end."
In the end, Females is not a polemic; it's not a guide to escaping the tyranny of our supposed powerlessness in the face of desire. Instead, it is one woman's attempt to make sense of a time when the possibilities for identity feel terrifying and punishingly limitless, wondering what it might look like to accept our inescapable femaleness — even if we don't always play by its rules, Chu argues, it might help to know how the points are scored. Beneath the veneer of Females' provocation, those indefensible ideas, it is a surprisingly tender book that aims to tend to a universal ache: the frayed knot of selfhood, desire and power through which, Chu argues, we might try to see ourselves and each other more clearly.